Actors over athletes

Beneath the Cultural Olympiad, the Criterion theatre will show the funny side of the Olympics in two new plays.

The build-up to the sport explosion that looms over London is heightening, but the Olympics bring more than just inspiration to exercise in logo-coated vests. Since 2008 London has borne witness to the “Cultural Olympiad”, which triangulates various expressions of culture in the form of theatre productions, festivals and workshops. The Olympiad boasts more than 8 300 past workshops with a total attendance of 169 000 people, and over 16 million people have seen an offical London 2012 cultural performance. But, slightly outside the official team's monopoly on cultural events, London holds a number of theatrical sparks beneath the Olympic radar.

Coinciding with the Olympic dates, the Criterion Theatre in Piccadilly Circus will be holding a programme titled Playing the Games. The series of events is technically part of the Olympiad in the London 2012 Festival, but being London's only independent West End theatre and with a humble capacity of 588, it falls slightly under the array of official events. Playing the Games holds an opportunity to see both up-and-coming and well-established talents in the form of comedians, musicians, playwrights and Olympians. With the aim to bring together sport and culture, encompassing the attempts of the London 2012 Olympics itself, the programme holds two new Olympic-related plays. Taking Part by Adam Brace strings together all the relevant spirits of self-belief and opportunism, and not excluding the timely Olympic tradition of things going wrong. The story follows a Congolese security guard training as an Olympic swimmer to compete in the London Games. His Russian coach doesn't have much hope for him, but unlike the audience watching real underdogs competing in the real Games, the audience will support his determination and optimism to the end. Alternatively, for the less sporty types, the Criterion will also be showing Serge Cartwright's After the Party. This follows Sean and Ray, two 30-ish-year-old former DJs trying to shove their feet back in the heavy doors of the music industry. With the world flocking around their Statford homes for London 2012 they have their last chance at a musical career, and the audience has yet another opportunity for Olympic merriment.

If your cultural aim this summer is to avoid the Olympic theme altogether, Playing the Games will also hold performances aimed at the less athletic audience, or at those poor Londoners afflicted with Olympic-bitterness. The renowned and skilled arts group, Paper Cinema, will be showing for one day only a version of Homer's the Oddysey using hand-drawn paper puppets. In what the Times has called “ingeniously effective”, Paper Cinema will use their skilled puppet masters and riveting live musicians to bring cardboard cut-outs to life. For a more informal theatrical experience, the Criterion is also holding a number of lunchtime interviews by such comedy personalities as Stephen Fry and Alan Davies, and sporting inspirations as Edwin Moses and Haile Gebrselassie.

The Criterion will not be the only theatre to bring drama to the Olympics. At Headlong, Citizens Theatre and Watford Palace Theatre, a new opportunity to see the classic Euripides tragedy Medea will come to light. Mike Bartlett has audaciously written a modern version in association with the Warwick Arts Centre that makes the ancient drama even more horrifying in contemporary context. Or, on the lighter side, you could see a play about a man in labour. Birthday by Joe Penhall at the Royal Court Theatre tells a more comic story about a world with artificial wombs and truly equal partnership in childbirth. Arriving into the world kicking and screaming, Birthday will be showing throughout the summer and shows the wide variety of entertainment available to London in place of sweaty Olympic crowds.

Obi Abili plays an amateur Congolese Olympic swimmer in a new production at the Criterion theatre. Photograph: Bill Knight
SAMUEL COURTAULD TRUST
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The paintings designed to better sculpture

In Pieter Bruegel’s hands, even black and white paintings can be full of colour, as a new exhibition at the Courtauld Gallery shows.

Grisailles – monochrome images usually painted in shades of grey and white – have a long tradition. Early examples appeared in the 14th century as miniatures or manuscript illuminations and then later on the outside of the folding panels of altarpieces, where they imitated sepulchre statues and offered a stark contrast to the bright colour of the paintings inside. With their minimal palette, grisailles also offered painters a chance both to show off their skill and to add their bit to the age-old artistic debate about paragone: which was superior – sculpture, with its ability to show a figure in three dimensions, or painting, with its powers of illusion? By pretending to be sculpture, grisailles could better it.

The first artist to paint grisailles as independent works for private enjoyment and contemplation was the Netherlander Pieter Bruegel the Elder (circa 1525-69), whose folk scenes of peasants carousing or of hunters in a snowy landscape have long been staples of art’s quotidian, earthy strand. Only about 40 works by him are now known and of those, just three are grisailles (not a term he would have recognised; he referred to the pictures simply as “painted in black and white”). This trio of survivors has been reunited for the first time, at the Courtauld Gallery, with an accompanying selection of copies and engravings – a mere ten pictures in all – for a fascinating one-room exhibition.

The grisailles show a deeper and more intellectual artist than the sometimes slapstick figure who would dress as a peasant in order to gatecrash weddings in the Brabant countryside and record the drunken and playful goings-on in his pictures. They reflect the position of the Low Countries in Bruegel’s time, caught between the Catholicism of their Spanish overlords and the emerging Protestantism that had been sparked by Martin Luther only eight years before Bruegel’s birth. These tensions soon erupted in the Eighty Years War.

Of the three paintings, two show religious subjects – The Death of the Virgin (1562-65) and Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (1565) – and one is a scene that would have been familiar in the streets around him, Three Soldiers (1568). This last, lent by the Frick Collection in New York, shows a drummer, a piper and a standard-bearer in the elaborately slashed uniforms of German Landsknechte mercenaries. Such groupings featured often in German prints and Bruegel’s small picture is a clever visual game: painting could imitate not only sculpture, but prints, too. What’s more, the gorgeously coloured uniforms (mercenaries were exempt from the sumptuary laws that restricted clothing to sedate colours) could be shown to be just as arresting even in black and white.

If this is a painting about painting, the ­religious works have, it seems, added layers of meaning – although it is always difficult with Bruegel to work out what that meaning is and how personal it might be. The Courtauld’s Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery shows Jesus stooping in front of the Pharisees and saving the accused woman from stoning by writing in the dust, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” That he spells out the words in Dutch rather than Hebrew, which was more usual in other images of the scene (and which he uses on the tunic of one of the learned men observing the mute play), suggests that this picture – a plea for clemency – was intended to serve as a call for religious tolerance amid mounting sectarian antagonism. While the gaping faces of the onlookers recall those of Hieronymus Bosch, the flickering calligraphic touches and passages of great delicacy are all his own.

The picture stayed with Bruegel until his death, so it had a personal meaning for him; more than 20 copies were subsequently made. Included in the exhibition are the copies painted by his sons, Jan and Pieter the Younger (a coloured version), as well as the earliest known print after it, from 1579, by Pieter Perret, which shows some of the detail in the crowd around the central figures that has been lost in the discoloured panel.

If the sombre tones of grisaille are suited to the pared-down faith advocated by Luther, the death of the Virgin was a familiar topic in Catholic and Orthodox iconography. Bruegel’s picture, from Upton House in Warwickshire, depicts an episode that doesn’t actually appear in the Bible. A group of Apostles and mourners has gathered around the Virgin’s bed, the scene lit by the heavenly light emanating from the dying woman and the five flames from the candles and the hearth that correspond to the five wounds suffered by her son on the cross. Domestic items litter the room – a slice of orange, slippers, a dozing cat – and there is a sleeping attendant, unaware of the miracle of Assumption that will shortly unfold. Here is a moving nocturne in which the mysteries of religion emerge from and disappear back into the shadows.

While Bruegel’s peasant works display a delight in physical pleasure, these three bravura works, painted for humanist connoisseurs and for himself, portray the sober, spiritual concerns that come to the fore once the last drop has been drunk. 

The exhibition runs until 8 May. For more details, go to: courtauld.ac.uk

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle